Joyland

New York |

Ocean Jumper

by Stephanie Jimenez

edited by Kyle Lucia Wu

When Lamia couldn’t be found on the tiny island of Atlantia, the people turned to the priest. Weren’t they meant to disappear altogether, not alone, not one by one? But the priest, who calculated the math of the scripture as if it were only a matter of licking one’s finger and lifting it to the wind, reassured them that the second-coming had yet to come.

So many things had changed in Atlantia since the thirteen-year-old Lamia disappeared—tourism boomed, the main roads of Helen became paved, condos were built overlooking the ocean—and in the years that followed, Atlantia was even deemed a territory of the Oceanic Alliance, obliterating its centuries-long anonymity in the middle of the sea. It was ruled that for visitors from the countries that comprised the Alliance, Atlantia’s laws compelling prayer and worship need not apply. But even with all the progress that had been made, the disappearances of Atlantian girls never stopped.

At twenty years old, Astria sometimes looked out from the cliffside flat where she and her fiancée lived. Sometimes, she thought of Lamia, but mostly, she hoped to see a girl leaping in. Once their bodies kissed the water, they were allegedly transformed forever. In her girlhood, certain things had escaped speculation, but as a woman, she’d accrued many questions about the disappeared girls they termed ocean-jumpers. Among them was the question of fins and nerve endings. Astria wondered what intimacy was like at the depths of the ocean, and if, without a man’s touch, intimacy could even exist.

One thing she knew for certain: it was only sinners who heard the call to jump. Now that she lived so close to the ocean, she’d been peering out the window more and more, but she still hadn’t seen anyone in the water. Sometimes, as she stared, Astria’s mind wandered back to the bed, where Ethan still lay, half-dressed. Alarmed, she would hurry away. Her marriage was so close now—she needn’t now sin. What she needed to do was wait.

***

The year that Lamia disappeared, Astria was tall and overdeveloped, with hair in places where children don’t realize hair should normally be. Her father had recently died in a construction accident in North Atlantia, and when her grief-stricken mother asked her to remain abstinent until after she found her true love, little Astria, who had now been exposed to incomprehensible horror, promised her only guardian that she would.

At the time, Atlantia had a population of roughly 1,500, but this minuscule number didn’t match the enormity of her classmates’ cruelty, which was provoked by the appearance of Astria’s purity ring, a rare sight even in the fundamentalist town of Helen. They called Astria’s house, only to berate her. Orphan! they yelled into the phone. Cursed!

Lamia, her next door neighbor and friend, was Astria’s only comfort. They’re lying, Lamia said, not long before she disappeared. To distract her, she turned on the battery-powered radio that she always carried. An English popstar’s voice lashed out from the static and the girls felt their faces whipped by his blonde hair. Wait! Lamia said, tying her shirt in a knot above her belly button. Astria laughed as she watched Lamia shimmy.

But seven years later, Astria still hadn’t been on a date. Ethan, who was ten years her senior and lived along the coast of the island, where only tourists and expats lived on the edges of cliffs, was the first man who’d ever asked her to dinner.

They’d met by coincidence, on her second day of work at a real estate office. She’d taken the rickety mini-bus to her job in North Atlantia, where people jumped on and off without the driver coming to a full stop. He’d been passing by when Astria jumped off, but she didn’t notice him until he came up behind her wielding a coin. You dropped this, he said, though Astria hadn’t recalled having money on her. Soon after, on their first date, he told her how he’d grown up in the biggest capitals of the Oceanic Alliance—Buenos Aires, Casablanca, Stellenbosch. He mentioned his dad’s catering business, which was entrusted to him and his twin sister, because his parents lived in Tel Aviv. A flight to any of those places cost more than what Astria, or her mother, could make in a year.

“I live in Helen,” she told him, knowing they were wasting their time.

“Anyone could see that,” he said, and to Astria’s immediate endearment, he tossed his blonde bangs and blushed.

When Ethan proposed to her at the Atlantian mall two weeks later, Astria was shocked. He asked her to live with him, promising to respect her purity vow. Ethan’s twin sister and business partner, Eunice, was there, documenting it all. Strangers stopped and clapped. When he twisted off her purity ring and replaced it with the new one, she saw that the stone had the gleam of weathered sea-glass. Ethan had fished it knee-deep in the water, a place that she knew was off-limits to her, a place that she, nor any other God-fearing woman in Helen, had ever gone before.

***

On Sundays, Astria took the bus from Ethan’s apartment in North Atlantia for eleven miles until she reached the town center. There, she met her mother at the concrete hovel known as House of Helen, the oldest and most cared-after building in town, erected countless centuries ago. In Helen, there was no shoreline, only a muddy pond dotted in small cement houses. Atlantia had changed a lot, but only in some areas—in others, the scarcity remained stark. Tourists came to the heart of the island to gape from their tinted windows. This was the area where Astria had grown up with her mother—a little tin house at the end of a road, with no hot water and no screen doors.

The sermon was always the same.

“Fix yourself,” her mother hissed. “I see your bra. Horrible.”

Astria pulled her blouse up and kept her face toward the pulpit. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it. She felt her mother’s eyes lingering.

“Have you decided on a date yet? What’s taking so long?”

Astria didn’t like her mother much, and she especially didn’t like her mother asking about things that already made Astria anxious, like the undetermined date of her wedding. Her mother didn’t talk—she only critiqued. As a teenager, Astria remembered her barking like a dog at unannounced guests. Astria knew she was lucky—very lucky—that Ethan had proposed before meeting her mother.

“Why don’t you come over and tell me at lunch?”

And so it was revealed to be the lake of fire, from which there is no redemption!

The priest’s voice boomed. At the front of the room, a row of women fell to the floor. Usually Astria remained perfectly still, but today she felt as if something were clawing up her throat, like a rat desperate to find its way out of its cage. Was she getting sick? She felt scratching at her throat.

“Astria?” The sound of her name made her flinch.

“Not today,” Astria said, wrapping her fingers gently around her neck, as if to coax what had risen back down.

***

In the absence of their parents, who lived in Stellenbosch—or was it Berlin? Lisbon? Astria could never remember—the love that Ethan and Eunice shared for one another was fierce. Astria suspected that being twins made their bond even stronger, and she knew not to complain whenever Eunice asked for a favor.

“He’s probably a dick,” Eunice said, now, kicking her feet onto the dining room table. “But it’s still better than staying home alone, right?”

“What are those?” Astria asked, pointing to the grinning man on Eunice’s phone.

“They’re called gauges.”

When Eunice accidentally kicked her purse with her heel, Astria saw the sheen of a blade.

“For protection,” Eunice said. “You know how it is around here. Especially so close to the shore.”

Astria was surprised. She had never heard Eunice refer to ocean-jumpers before. At House of Helen, they said that jumpers sometimes emerged from the water, crawling like snakes on their bellies. Their tails flapped heavy behind them like soaked towels. They lured wicked girls with them to sea, where they ate off their long, shaven legs, which would later regrow into one horrible fin. These were the things that made women faint in church, the same things that her mother would repeat to Astria during Sunday’s post-sermon lunch. But Eunice didn’t go to House of Helen. The only place that Astria knew Eunice to go was the strip of bars facing the boardwalk.

“Thanks again,” Eunice said. “Robin loves when you watch her.”

“I have nowhere to be,” Astria said. “Ethan’s working tonight, a last-minute event that came through. Catering never stops, does it?”

Eunice looked at Astria as if she’d just remembered something important. She dashed across the living room to the enormous hutch and pulled a slim paper bag from the highest drawer.

“Astria, have you tried the pill? You take one per day. It’s easy.”

Eunice clasped Astria’s hands. With the package in her palm, Astria tightened her grip, as if she could stop something noxious from leaking through.

“Hi,” Robin said, emerging from the bathroom. The eight-year-old’s arms were crossed.

“Bye, ladies,” Eunice said, grabbing her keys from the rack by the door. In seconds, she’d put on her jacket. Toward Astria, she smiled. “You must be getting excited,” she said, closing the front door. “Marriage is a big deal.”

Astria quickly stuffed the birth control packet into her bag, but the little girl was indifferent.

“I’m going to my room,” Robin said, without looking back around.

***

At Ethan’s apartment, the TV was so loud, Astria couldn’t hear him greet her once she’d returned from Eunice’s. A dud, Eunice told her, when Astria asked how the date had gone.

Astria was surprised to see that Ethan was already home—he usually worked well past midnight. On the screen, two men were arguing. Astria recognized one of them as House of Helen’s priest, and on TV, he was less commanding than in person. The sides of his lips hung in a bulldoggish pout. She didn’t recognize the red-headed man beside him.

“If they limit the supply ships, it would be a death sentence,” the priest said. “The only time the Oceanic Alliance cut us off from aid was in the Great Recession. It was genocide!”

“The Oceanic Alliance has always had jurisdiction over crimes committed by visitors,” the other man answered. His voice was like volcanic rocks, and he spoke with a lilt similar to Ethan’s. “Atlantia simply doesn’t have the resources to convict and imprison foreign residents, so there’s no other option than to extradite wrongdoers. But does that mean that visitors, the vast majority of them perfectly good, law-abiding citizens, shouldn’t be allowed to come? Don’t be ridiculous. As long as Atlantia continues to be friendly to tourism, supply ships will never be cut off.”

“I’m exhausted,” Astria announced, but Ethan didn’t turn away from the TV.

That night, as Ethan slept beside her, Astria woke with an unsettling thought. Eunice knew that Astria had yet to have sex with her brother—but how? Had he complained? They’d only been engaged for a couple of months, but Ethan was a global citizen, not like Astria, who’d never left the confines of the island. She never expected him to respect or even learn the conventions of House of Helen, and now she felt ridiculous for her decision to abstain. Even more ridiculous was to be jealous of her fiancée’s twin sister, but Astria couldn’t truthfully say that she wasn’t.

In the window a light gleamed. Astria went to it and gazed down at the coast. There was a tiny white blur skidding across the water, but a moment later, it disappeared. She heard a sound like the world spinning on its axis and felt a great sadness push down on her chest.

Oh, Lamia , she thought, as she picked up her backpack and fished the pill pack out. Did anyone beside Astria remember? There were so many new things in Astria’s life for which she was grateful, but as she inspected the little, white pill, what she yearned for was something tested and proven, trusted and familiar, like a twin sister, or an old friend.

***

Eunice texted her at work, a dimly lit real-estate building where Astria was assistant to an old man who thought himself better than her because he learned how to speak English without an island accent. My husband was born abroad, she wanted to tell him—but of course, he wasn’t her husband just yet.

In recent days, she’d been fantasizing about her new married life, and when she did, she was always sleeping long hours in a house far away from Atlantia. She imagined herself in Stellenbosch or Buenos Aires, in a house lined with fruit trees, though she hadn’t decided what kind. She imagined throwing parties and making many, many friends.

After leaving work for the day, she called Ethan from the grocery store.

“Can you get us some Jaffa Cakes?” Ethan asked, as soon as she told him where she was. She could make him cookies at home, it was cheaper that way, but Ethan fancied imported products.

“Your sister asked if I could look after her daughter again,” Astria answered. “Should she really be dating with a child at home?”

“Have some sympathy. She’s a single mom.”

“Right,” Astria said. Her own mother had never dated after her father died, and this had secretly been a source of pride to Astria in her girlhood. But now she wondered if it was because her mother hadn’t remarried that she had been so domineering of Astria, and feeling a sudden swell of sympathy for Eunice, she paid for the Jaffa Cakes.

***

That Saturday, Eunice left instructions at the apartment: “feed her what’s in the fridge.” Astria unearthed a crock-pot filled with some indiscernible, gray stew. At the table, Robin’s mood was stormier than usual, which meant it was significantly turbulent.

“Are mermaids real?” the little girl asked.

Before Astria could stop her, Robin pushed away from the table and bolted to her room. When she came out, she had a pamphlet in hand, its flimsy pages bent out of shape. The cover image was a tiny figure with charred skin, sunken eyes, and fangs. Astria had seen these images so many times before; they were plastered on House of Helen pamphlets. Swollen and snaking like an embryo, with a long, ratty tail, these corpses had allegedly washed up on shore. Astria had seen them waved from the pulpit. Look and see—the price of wickedness! In the front of the room, women always collapsed.

Astria knew that Robin was just at the age when she needed to learn about jumpers, but it was a conversation best left for a girl’s mother. She couldn’t fathom what it was like to teach a child about something so terrifying, so gruesome, and in fact, once upon a time, a time that Astria perhaps could no longer remember, she had promised herself that if she’d ever had her own daughter, she wouldn’t so much as utter the word. But Astria felt a certain sense of smug responsibility now, warranted, given the girl’s own impetuousness, even if it was a tinged by a slight sense of masochism— I have followed the rules, and now I will be married, and if you follow the rules, you might have this, too. So, even though she was not Robin’s mother, she told her anyway.

“They’re called jumpers,” Astria said. “It’s what happens if you don’t behave.”

But Robin’s eyes were dry and enormous, and bright as harvest moons.

“You’re lying,” the little girl said.

Lying. Astria’s heart stopped beating. Something bulged in her throat. In her mind’s little eye, the one that squinted fearfully at the elevated pulpit, at the mangled painted bodies that hung on the walls, she saw all of the women going down like dominos. They were all lying—on the floor, in rows—and when her little eye surveyed their prostrate bodies, it was so easy to see now that they were still breathing, blinking up at the priest who rose and lowered his fists with gusto, as if commanding an orchestra.

***

It took a long time to coax Robin into going to bed. When Astria entered her room after washing the dishes, she had been surprised to find the girl curled onto her windowsill, gazing at the coastline below.

“I hate it here,” Robin told her. “I miss my friends in Tel Aviv.”

“You’ll see them again,” Astria said, leading her away from the window and into bed, where the girl promptly fell asleep.

Something about Robin’s sadness had been tugging at Astria since then, and she’d been thinking of the little girl when she felt her phone vibrate two blocks from Ethan’s door. She was prepared to tell him that she would consider Tel Aviv, and she was disappointed when she saw it wasn’t Ethan calling.

“Mom?”

“Rhea’s lost her mind. Selene is gone.”

For as long as Astria remembered, Rhea and her many daughters lived alone. Selene must’ve been only four or five years older than Robin. She had a stutter.

“Rhea’s brother is gone, too,” her mother said. “We need to bring Selene back.”

Astria took a step backwards. Bring her back? From where? The ocean floor? Astria’s patience burst into flames. Over the years, so many girls had gone missing, and each time, her mother had the same reaction: don’t be a hussy like her. In Atlantia, nobody kept track of the girls, so nobody knew how many were gone, and that was because everybody agreed that when girls disappeared, it was their own fault.

“That’s the most hypocritical thing I’ve ever heard you say.”

“Oh, Astria,” her mother said. “After all I’ve done for you, you still don’t love me at all.”

Astria looked into the night. In the distance, she saw a shooting white star fall into the waves beyond the horizon.

Quickly, Astria located a memory. It was not long after her father died, and Astria’s mother approached her after a shower to tell her about Lamia’s disappearance. Astria was crying and crying, longing to change out of her flimsy, white towel, but her mother wouldn’t stop, no matter how much she wailed. When it was finally over, they never spoke of Lamia again. At thirteen years old, Astria’s father had been dead for a year, and her mother, who shoved the purity ring on her and guarded the door, only served to remind her that at the dawn of her womanhood, Astria was entering a new world, a world where girls gobbled up by the ocean wouldn’t be saved. It was a defining memory, the one Astria revisited when she wanted to remember what hate could feel like. When she was cruel to her mother, she remembered one of the lessons she’d learned from her: your grief, as well as your punishments, are yours to endure, alone.

“Goodnight,” Astria said.

A metallic beep announced her mother’s departure.

***

For protection, Astria remembered. That’s how Eunice explained the knife that Astria now knew she carried when she went out at night to meet all her dates. But everyone in House of Helen knew you couldn’t fight off an ocean-jumper. Eunice didn’t grow up on the island, but she knew how to say fuck you in 30 languages and went out to the bars every night. If Eunice had learned anything about jumpers, she would know that the best you could do was hide.

The TV was off at Ethan’s apartment, but all the lights were on. She saw the excavated Jaffa Cake box lying on its side, its crumbs spread all over the counter, before she went into the bedroom. He’d flung the sheets to the floor like a child. She’d never seen him masturbate before.

He scrambled to cover himself, but the night had left Astria in an odd state of mind. It hurt to hear what her mother said, precisely because it was true. She met her every Sunday and she wore the purity ring all those years—but why? Her mother was right. Astria did not love her.

“Let me,” she said, moving his hands away.

As she climbed on top of him, she felt a twinge of cinematic motivation, as if there was someone watching that she shouldn’t disappoint. She only knew it was over when he lifted her off by the hips. For moments, they said nothing. Astria understood that something was wrong.

“Astria,” he said. “Eunice and I are selling the business. Catering can’t pay the bills.”

The word bills had an immediate effect, its coppery taste on her tongue.

“But what about the wedding?”

“Yes, of course, we’ll have the wedding. I want to talk you about another idea.” Ethan cupped his hands on her cheeks. He pulled her chin up, toward him. “You know Atlantia’s reputation. Why people come here. It’s no secret that this place is home to the most beautiful girls in the world.”

He blushed but Astria’s mouth tightened. No, she didn’t know anything about other girls. When he said beautiful, it was always just you.

“I don’t understand,” she said.

“Eunice has already met several interested clients, but we don’t have the islanders’ trust. You know Helen, and you can tell everyone that working with us will be different. We’ll make everything safe. We’ll establish protections. We’ll make trafficking something we can all benefit from.”

Ethan’s face was wet with sweat. A silence hung heavy, like a ripe, fragrant orange. She imagined it hanging from a tree outside her living room, where she would host many parties once she was living abroad.

“Do you think ocean-jumpers go to heaven?” she asked.

He laughed, her face still in his hands. “Don’t be silly. Don’t let those hicks get to your head.”

“It might happen to me.”

“We’re getting married,” he said, and this time, his voice was less plaintive. “Don’t you see? I’m keeping you safe.”

Astria thought of the girls who were gone. All of them had fathers or boyfriends or uncles—strong, adult men in their lives. Astria, who had long forgotten what her father looked like, had been envious of those girls who once called her an orphan. But even with powerful men in their lives, so many of them hadn’t been kept safe.

“No,” she said. “You can’t.”

His fingers flew from her face to her throat. She closed her eyes and felt his nails puncture her skin as if it had as much yield as a buttery pear. He pinched deeper and deeper, until she was sure she would splatter, entrails everywhere.

“Do you know what you were going for? An Atlantian virgin? Do you know what men love to do to women like you? Or is that something your cult never taught you?”

It was impossible to answer. The skin of her neck was swelling up, pushing back, but he only gripped it tighter.

“Even your mother knows how lucky you are. She gave you to me because she knew I’d take care of you, but she could’ve sold you instead. She could’ve made a killing from you.”

Finally, when she no longer felt any pressure at all, Astria opened her eyes.

“So what do you think? Who’s keeping you safe?”

She didn’t dare whimper. She kept her eyes open, on him, as she lay her head back on their just-christened bed.

“You,” Astria said, and it came out the same way as when she first said I will marry you, as if it were bubbling up from the depths of a dream.

***

In the morning, the local radio show blared from the speakers of the mini-bus to Helen. “These ocean-jumpers are unnatural,” a frantic woman said. Another caller elaborated. “It’s a big slap in the face. His face.” A man’s voice boomed. “These girls are devils—plain and simple.”

“Ma,” Astria called outside of her mother’s door. Since last night, Astria had been feeling adrift in confusion. Longing to anchor herself with the truth, she had dialed her mother’s number dozens of times, but still, there was no answer.

There was only one other place she could think to look. It took much too long to get back from her mother’s house to North Atlantia, but as soon as she did, she ran down the cliff to the beach. She had never been so close to the shore before, and her feet made a terrible sound as they pounded onto the dock. Astria reached the edge and looked into the blue. Was she out there? Her mother wasn’t sympathetic to most women, but she was to Rhea. She imagined them together with nets and lights, stealing away in a boat, searching for Selene.

Astria thrust her hands over her eyes to see past the sun, and just as she did, the ring launched off her finger. When it splashed into the water, Astria jumped. It was in mid-air, as she barreled down toward the ocean, that she realized what she’d done.

She collided into the surface screaming. But when the ripple had cleared, her legs were still there. Where she’d expected scales, there were goosebumps. And now, as the cold water slapped at her face, she remembered how after Lamia disappeared, the family still hadn’t had a memorial before they had a new car. It was a big deal in Helen, one that Astria remembered, because nobody had owned one before. Soon after, they were gone. Astria couldn’t remember where to—maybe Buenos Aires, or Stellenbosch.

A white cloud rolled over Astria, obscuring her into the mist. She’d learned to swim in the Helen pond, but the ocean was different, deeper. Astria rubbed at her finger, where the rings had once been, but there was no discernible marking. She wondered if it was only a reflex, an evolutionary guffaw, to go after something you already know has been lost well past the point of redemption.

Just as the tide became unbearably strong, she felt a firm tug on her leg.

“Lamia?”

Again, she felt the tug.

Astria’s eyes flooded. She opened her mouth, but no sound came out. In her rapture, she saw nothing, not even the oncoming surf. By the time that it crashed, Astria was under. But before then, it occurred to her that someone might be watching, so she looked up, toward the cliffs, and waved.